PHOENIX — State lawmakers cannot ignore a court order to provide more funds for schools now while they appeal the findings, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Judge Katherine Cooper of Maricopa County Superior Court rejected arguments by attorneys for the Legislature that her decision the state owes schools what translates to an extra $331 million is somehow not in effect. They had argued that her July ruling was subject to an automatic postponement while they seek Court of Appeals review.
She said her ruling simply ordered lawmakers to start complying with a previous decision by the Arizona Supreme Court that they had ignored a 2000 voter-approved mandate to adjust state aid to schools each year to account for inflation. More to the point, her order calculated exactly how much needs to be added to basic state aid “to fulfill that mandate.”
What that means, she said, is her order is in effect — and enforceable.
Cooper is wrong in believing the state has to start paying the money before the Supreme Court gets a chance to see how she calculated the figure, said Peter Gentala, an attorney for the state House.
Gentala also said the ruling ignores the state’s financial problems. He pointed to a report released Tuesday from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee projecting a $200 million deficit for this fiscal year even without the payment to the schools.
Tuesday’s order does not require the Legislature to come into session immediately to appropriate the funds, said Don Peters, who represents the school districts that sued.
But what it does, Peters said, is provide options the schools can seek to ensure the money starts flowing and is not held up by delays caused by appeals. And he said it even could provide a method of getting the money even if lawmakers balk.
Lawmakers at first fought the whole question of whether they were obligated to comply with the voter mandate, contending that 2000 vote was not binding on them.
That argument, however, was rejected last year by the Supreme Court. That left it up to Cooper to decide what was really owed.
That $317 million figure is what Cooper said would have been available this year to schools had legislators not ignored the inflation-funding mandate for several years during the recession.
Senate President Andy Biggs, however, contends that number needs to be offset by the money lawmakers gave to schools above and beyond what was required by inflation. He puts that figure at about $240 million.
Cooper, however, ruled in July that’s not the way the law reads. And Tuesday’s order says unless the appellate court intervenes, it’s time for lawmakers to start paying up.
Peters said there is precedent for what the judge is doing — and for the schools to seek some sanctions if lawmakers balk.
Cooper is separately considering a claim by schools that they are entitled to about $1.3 billion they did not get in inflation funds for prior years. A hearing on that is set for later this month.